Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Jazz is NOW, then and now: Talking with Jeremy Walker and Bryan Nichols

Founded in 2003 by Jeremy Walker, launched with a performance by Wynton Marsalis and his quintet at the Brilliant Corners jazz club in St. Paul, Jazz is NOW! has been a sort of cousin to Jazz at Lincoln Center and SF Jazz: a presenting organization, a composers’ forum, an affiliation of improvising musicians. 

Jazz is NOW! supported a flexible jazz ensemble called the NOWnet, one of the few groups in the country dedicated to composing and performing new music. It had a board and a website (where you could listen to music, view videos and photos, read a blog, download scores, and check the calendar for upcoming performances), and it brought in guest artists including Wessell Anderson, Ted Nash, David Berkman, and Matt Wilson.

Jazz is NOW! and the NOWnet have been good things. I always thought the NOWnet should be the house band at the Walker Art Center, playing jazz for gallery openings and special events, fronting other bands that appeared in its annual performing arts series.

The NOWnet most recently performed in 2009. It has been on hiatus since Jeremy Walker moved to New York City in 2010. On Friday, fans and friends can see the group one final time, at the Loring Theater, in a performance aptly titled “The NOWnet’s Last Dance.” 

Guest artists Marcus Printup (of Jazz at Lincoln Center) and Wess “Warmdaddy” Anderson (the Wynton Marsalis Quintet) will join Jeremy Walker on piano, Chris Thomson on tenor sax, Jeff Brueske on bass, and JT Bates on drums for an evening of original music. Sometime during the evening, Walker will name pianost/composer Bryan Nichols the new Artistic Director of the organization.

We had a virtual sit-down via email.

Jeremy Walker by John Whiting
PLE: Jeremy, how is New York treating you?

Jeremy Walker: I really like New York. There is so much music, and I have been able to connect with some new people and old friends. Marsha and I stay up until all hours. We love our apartment. But we work all the time, and that can be exhausting. There is a guy across the courtyard who is at his desk until really late. I often try to outwork him, and it bothers me when my lights go out before his. But, I come home to Minneapolis every month, so sometimes it feels like I haven’t left.

PLE: Why did you decide to turn over the reigns of Jazz is NOW! at this particular point in time?

Jeremy: It isn’t so much that I am in New York much of my time. It has a lot to do with where I am at with the piano. When I started Jazz is NOW! I was still playing saxophone and Marsha was still working with me, so I could run the organization and still keep up with the horn. When I had to switch to piano, I let Jazz is NOW! go dormant for a while and then brought it back when I could cover the piano chair. Now, I feel like I am in a new period of deepening my connection with the piano. Often, I am at it for more than nine hours a day, and then I am composing on top of that. That leaves little room to pay attention to other things. So I have been trying to decide what to do with Jazz is NOW! for a while. I didn’t want all we had done to go away, so I thought I would turn it over.

PLE: Why did you choose Bryan Nichols as your successor?

Jeremy: Well, he is a natural fit. He is a great musician. He composes. He is staying in Minneapolis for the foreseeable future and is committed to doing cool stuff in the music. It also was important—to me, anyway—that a pianist runs it. Also, he plays with so many people across generations. That has always been part of Jazz is NOW! and I knew he would represent that, probably better than I did. We share a lot of opinions about the culture of jazz. I also liked that we don’t always see eye to eye on all the music. I just naturally think agreement, at least in the particulars, is boring and maybe a little dangerous.

PLE: What was Bryan’s response when you first asked him about this?

Jeremy: He answered unequivocally, yes. He is excited to work on it.

Bryan Nichols by John Whiting
PLE: Bryan, what was your first thought/reaction when Jeremy asked if you’d like to take over Jazz is NOW?

Bryan Nichols: I was excited and intrigued by the possibilities, certainly. I’d been talking to him about possibly starting my own nonprofit, as it seemed like something that I would be able to do some interesting things with, and we realized it made much more sense for me to just step into this role.

PLE: Will you change the name?

Bryan: I will be changing the name, to separate it from its old incarnation and put my own stamp on the leadership/direction. It’s totally possible we might decide the word “jazz” doesn’t need to be in the title, even though it is and will continue to be something that’s really all about jazz/improvised music. We’ll see.

PLE: I know it’s very early, but what are your initial thoughts about what the organization might do going forward? What kind of role will it play in the Twin Cities jazz community?

Bryan: I guess I’d like to see this organization working towards all sorts of things. I like the idea of supporting and being a focal point for musicians writing and exploring their music, of presenting shows and bringing other artists/musicians to work in conjunction with Twin Cities musicians/artists, maybe some sort of educational programming. Definitely trying to identify and build audiences. Basically, in a jazz world that’s too often completely New York-centric, I like the idea of an organization that’s promoting and supporting music and musicians/artists and building audiences and communities on a local/regional level, and we’ll hopefully be channeling our resources to do those things.

PLE: What will your first step(s) be as Artistic Director?

Bryan: I'm not completely sure yet, but I think the best place to start will be working with the board and the music community to try to identify both things that this organization can/should do and identify/find possible resources to help us do them. I’ll be looking at how we can build on Jeremy’s tenure, both in terms of the organization itself, but also how the organization reaches into the community, whether via concerts or recordings or whatever.

PLE: Jeremy, will you still play a role in Jazz is NOW?

Jeremy: Not officially. I am happy to help in whatever way I can, but Jazz is NOW! is Bryan’s now to take where he wants it. I don't have any founder’s ownership feelings or anything like that.

PLE: Bryan, what’s one thing you would like to accomplish before the end of the year?

Bryan: I’d love to look at rolling out the new identity in some sort of concert or maybe even a small festival. I’d like to just get the ball rolling and the organization reestablished as an artistic force in the Twin Cities music/arts community, so however we begin to do that, we will, hopefully.

PLE: Will you perform at the Last Dance concert?

Bryan: I won’t be performing. Logistically, it just didn’t work out, and really, this concert to me is all about the excellent work that Jeremy’s done building this organization and the NOWnet, and it should be about him and his music and the culmination of his time and work. My part of it is in the future, and I’m totally cool with that.

PLE: Jeremy, what’s next for you?

Jeremy: The piano. Actually, a lot of things. Composing, arranging, playing. I will keep working with my trio [the Small City Trio, with Jeff Brueske and Tim Zhorne] here. The last gig we did, in February at the Dakota, was one of the greatest gigs of my life. I love the band, and we will be going out on some short tours starting this summer. After that, maybe we will record the new material. I am singing a lot more and started to love doing it. So I am reading a lot of poetry and trying to write material for the trio with voice. I have a couple of projects in the early stages in New York, larger band stuff. But they will take a while to develop. The main thing is getting deeper into the music on as many levels as I can.

PLE: Any favorite memories of Jazz is NOW! you’d like to share?

Jeremy: Of course, the easy answer would be the night we launched Jazz is NOW! with Wynton Marsalis, when Itzhak Perlman sat in. But there are all the gigs. Bryant Lake Bowl with Todd Reynolds (violin). Matt Wilson at the Minnesota Opera Center, my first show on piano with the NOWnet…. I think a lot about the shows with Ted Nash and the first show with Wess Anderson. I really enjoyed some of the conflicts that came up along the way. Also, the people who are now like family: Brian [Voerding], Jason [Jungbluth], Elise, Ben, all the musicians.

But my favorite—and I thought about this a lot—was the first rehearsal of the NOWnet in 2004. It was a nine-piece band, and I played second tenor. We were scrambling to get material together. Anthony Cox was on bass. For me, it was very exciting to be on the very front edge of something I believed in. We had so many great ideas as to how to proceed. We were in my old space, Brilliant Corners, late at night, playing. It just was perfect to me. I am really happy to see how much we did accomplish, looking back, but that night is still very special to me.

Friday, April 15, 8:00 p.m., Loring Theater: The NOWNet’s Last Dance. 1407 Nicollet Ave. S., Minneapolis, MN 55403. $12 adults ($10 advance), $10 students, $25 VIP (reserved seating, one beverage ticket, access to the post-show reception with the NOWnet and guest artists). Tickets or FMI: 612-353-6781.

Jazz is NOW! (pre-NOWnet) at the Dakota, January 7, 2006

Matt Wilson's Carl Sandburg Project at the Minnesota Opera Center,
December 7, 2007, presented by Jazz is NOW!

Related: Jeremy Walker's essays on jazz on
Jazz Is a Bastard
The Ear is the Place, Man
City Bumpkin
The Musicians
In the End, Music

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